Instead of building on the surprising performance of 2014, the Dallas Cowboys find themselves picking up the pieces after the disaster of 2015. Injuries were the catalyst for a Chernobyl level melt-down. Last offseason, it looked like they had all the answers, especially to the more optimistic of us in the fan base. Now they face more questions than ever.
This is the offseason of our discontent. At the moment, we are mostly just waiting to see what will be done about the roster, which has myriad issues to address. The only real decision that the team has made has been to keep the coaching staff largely intact. While it shows a high level of belief from the front office in head coach Jason Garrett and his assistants, it is going to take a pretty radical reversal of fortune in the coming season to maintain that. With Tony Romo another year older as he comes off of breaking his collarbone twice, the team is faced with the options of going all in to try and capitalize on what are hoped to be two or three more years of high-level play from him (and almost certainly not the four or five years Jerry Jones keeps referring to), or focusing on building the team for the long haul.
However, it may not actually be a choice to make. Despite the pain of last season, it leaves the Cowboys in a somewhat unusual position. They have the ability to do both - if they can get it right.
First off, the team is in a good position under the salary cap. KD Drummond has laid out how Dallas can free up nearly $48 million in cap space for this year, and that is without further extensions to Romo's contract. With an expected cap of around $153 million this year, that means that the Cowboys have over a quarter of their cap space available for free agency as well as locking in players like Travis Frederick and Zack Martin for the long term. The Cowboys have always been very willing to use as much of their cap space as they can, but now they have a sustainable approach that seems to make it easier each year. The key to this has been getting their dead money figure under a million dollars. It is the best cap position they have had in recent memory, and it means they are not limited in what they do in free agency. That is not to say that they are going to be free-spending, since the team does not look at free agency as the best way to build a roster. it just means that they can go after one or two key free agents and pay what is needed to get them. Still, the team will likely rely more on bargain shopping to fix needs before the draft, but now they can be a bit more aggressive even there.
Secondly, the dismal finish in the standings leaves them with excellent draft capital to spend. If they get the scouting correctly, they should either get a blue-chip player in the first round or convert that to more picks if they should decide to trade back (assuming there is a good trading partner available). Last year, they were picking right at the bottom edge of legitimate first-round picks. Based on early returns, they negotiated that well with Byron Jones, plus they got the unexpected bonus of grabbing La'el Collins after his draft stock was unjustly ruined. Now, they should be able to get a legitimate first-round talent, and with an anticipated nine picks when compensatory ones are awarded, they should be able to find good value all up and down the draft.
It is going to take some hard work. They have to get it all to fit together correctly. But the team has the opportunity to add some players that should immediately help this fall while bringing in young talent that will pay off down the road. The Cowboys have been doing very well with the top of the draft recently, but certainly can do better in the mid and late rounds. They have also had some free agent moves that have not worked out as well as hoped. Caution will have to be exercised there, but hopefully they have learned from their mistakes.
For now, we still can only wait and hope. Things will go slowly until free agency. That won't heat up until the new league year begins on March 9. We are left to list possible free agent targets and of course do about a billion mock drafts. Still, the Cowboys sit in a very good position for both. Now they just have to figure out how to make them work.